Since everything about Les Misérables is fortissimo — including but not limited to its unabashed pursuit of awards that are shiny or globular or both — you have perhaps already heard a little about the movie now storming the Bastille of your wallet. You may already know that to make his movie adaptation of the internationally popular theatrical musical conjured from the 19th-century political novel by Victor Hugo, director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) bade his actors sing live during filming. You probably already know that Anne Hathaway, as the wretched single mother-turned-prostitute Fantine, is reputedly a formidable Oscar favorite for her sobbing and warbling and haircutting-in-real-time. You’ve learned, from posters and trailers, that Hugh Jackman, as former convict Jean Valjean, looks impressively stricken and that Russell Crowe, as implacable police inspector Javert, looks disconcertingly dyspeptic.
What’s left to learn is this: Les Misérables provides compelling reasons for Crowe to be peeved, beginning with the humiliation of having to sing Broadway-style, when it clearly is so not his thing, and ending with the Cap’n Crunch wardrobe into which the gentleman is packed. (O, for Crowe’s costumed glory days in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World!) Jackman has a right to be cranky too, although he’s too much of a trouper to show it as he overemotes on demand and sings of finding God after he steals a pair of candlesticks from a nice priest. (Long story.) Hathaway looks happy enough channeling Liza Minnelli for her tremulous rendition of the Susan Boyle-appropriated anthem ”I Dreamed a Dream,” but that’s no doubt because she knows that soon after the song, she’s pretty much done for the night.
Shall I go on about all the ways in which this fake-opulent Les Miz made me long for guillotines while millions of viewers who have softer, more generous hearts than I may swoon with money’s-worth contentment? (At least it doesn’t skimp on length: The movie is approximately as long as the 1832 Paris uprising it depicts.) Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter mug and prance as the comic-relief grifters Thénardier and his missus, outfitted in what has become de rigueur for both BCs — Pétrouchka makeup and prosthetically grungy teeth. Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne play the young lovers Cosette (Fantine’s muppet daughter, raised by Valjean) and the boy-band-styled student revolutionary Marius like lab rats, their pale faces and lashless eyelids often observed in the merciless close-up that is one of Hooper’s mix-it-up signature shots. (He is similarly devoted to tilted perspective and the room-at-a-45-degree-angle shot.)
It’s a daunting challenge, to be sure, to turn a big musical into a viable movie. For every great Cabaret, My Fair Lady, and The King and I, there’s a dud Rent, Evita, and Mamma Mia! But this steam-driven military weapon of an enterprise is a sobering reminder of just how tinny a musical Les Misérables was in the first place — the listless music and lyrics by Alain Boubil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and Herbert Kretzmer, the derivative characters fashioned from Oliver! scraps. And even if you do come to Mr. Hooper’s neighborhood loving the show, having seen seven stage productions and named your cat Gavroche after the urchin who hitches his fate to those of grown-up revolutionaries, well, you’re in for a gobsmacking: This ”prestige” production is at heart a minor road-show carnival, leaving behind little but tinsel as it rumbles through the streets of Awardstown. C